Art & Tragedy: What Florida Has to Offer

When conjuring up images of the deep South, sunny Florida isn’t usually the picture that comes to mind.  We cut around the state’s edges to stitch together a a confederate slice of buttermilk pie, complete with rolling hills of Carolinian tobacco and Tennessean fried chicken and… racially-charged shootings in Mississippi and Alabama.  Either we’re a terribly forgetful people or whoever’s in the marketing game for  Florida’s booming tourist industry is genius.  Florida’s 47,500 farms produce nearly 300 different commodities on more than 9.2 million acres of land in the state (Florida-Agriculture.com) each year.  I knew what Budweiser tasted like by the time I was five.  Every Florida native has eaten fried Alligator and enjoyed it (if you find a native who attempts to deny this fact s/he is a liar and is not to be trusted) and no one here is interested in your sophisticated, accredited, blue-state, gay-sympathizing agenda (well, I guess there are a few of us- but we’re dots in a red sea) .  In short, Floridians are hillbillies on beaches.

Zora Neale Hurston in Florida Sawmpland.

Zora Neale Hurston in Florida Sawmpland.

Last Fall, Florida adopted a series of raced-based standards under its waiver from George W. Bush’s infamous No Child Left Behind Act, stipulating that by 2018, 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanic students and 74 percent of black students are to be reading at or above grade level. This summer in the Sunshine Sate, George Zimmerman was acquitted of secondary-murder charges after stalking and shooting unarmed (African American) seventeen year old male Trayvon Martin while Marissa Alexander (an African American female) received a twenty-year sentence for firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband (no one was injured).   In my own home town, local Larry Ford flies a confederate flag alongside signs that bear messages such as, “Blacks Take Jobs From Whites” and  “Blacks Put in Charge over Whites”.   Florida is also quietly home to one of the most active branches of the Ku Klux Klan still existent today in the nation. While vehemently ignored, Florida’s rampant racism seems to be systemic and institutionalized- we are encouraged by our legal system to “stand our ground” using deadly force (that is, unless, you are African American) and have implicitly taught our children to believe that “separate but equal” is actually still “a thing” via antiquated and anti-black legislation, public “justice”, and curriculum.

Whether we want to admit it or not, Florida is that crusty corner piece of confederate pie.  Our past and present is marked with all  the staples of a William Faulkner Faulkner novel (imagine the Snopes go to Disney World and stop to eat citrus off the Ronald Reagan Turnpike) and it is tragic.  The thing about tragedy though, is it makes damn good art.

In Cambridge University’s  Nietzsche on the Genealogy of Morality, editor Keith Ansell-Pearson comments on Nietzsche’s discussion of the relationship between suffering and form, which seems particularly relevant here in the the buckle of the Bible belt, where we often turn  to religious figures and institutions to calibrate our internal compasses during these tragic times.

“…Priests become expert in asceticism, and in dealing with all forms of human suffering. It is in the hands of the priest, an artist in feelings of guilt, Nietzsche says, that guilt assumes form and shape…”

So where else does our guilt “assume form and shape”?   Perhaps  in spite of, or in protest to, or maybe just to cope with Florida’s propensity toward racial tragedy and our own guilt for allowing it to continue to eat at future generations, it’s housed an overwhelming number of my favorite-story tellers including; Marjorie Rawlings, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Jack Kerouac; even Jim Morrison and Tom Petty.  As a Floridian, I’m proud of my artistic heritage.  As an empathetic being and citizen of the world, I’m disappointed in our lethargic evolution.  And as an educator, I can only hope to teach my students to bring these two perspectives together in order to read, write, and participate in the world critically.

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